On Sunday, Samuel West will attempt the impossible at the Fairfield Halls.
It is almost 80 years since the public information film, Night Mail, was produced by what was then the GPO Film Unit to promote the work of the TPO – the Travelling Post Office, the sorting mail office on rails which ran from London to Scotland on what was then the LMS, the London Midland Scottish railway, nightly “… crossing the border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order”.
Hired for those now famous words and the essential music to accompany them were two of the burgeoning young talents of the pre-war arts scene: WH Auden and Benjamin Britten.
What they came up with has long since been regarded as a minor classic, probably Auden’s second-best known piece of verse, allied to Britten’s compelling, rackety-rack train-like soundtrack. And yet it nearly did not happen.
“At the time,” West says, “no one knew if Britten was being naive. The original narrator of Auden’s poem, Stuart Legg, looked at it and said, ‘I can’t read this. There’s no where to breathe’. As it follows the rhythm of the train and the music speeds up… well there’s a long section towards the end without a pause.
“Britten is supposed to have replied to Legg, ‘You don’t need to breathe. It’s a film, we can edit it all together.’ And that’s just what they did.
“My problem is that I do have to perform it live,” West said.
“I have to try to reproduce the patter-like flow of the text without suffocating. It is very difficult, performing at a particular tempo which is so fast. But I like dedicating myself to something that is impossible.”
West’s testing delivery of the words of Night Mail is one part of an evening of performance with the Aurora Orchestra, a young and vibrant chamber orchestra which will be providing the live soundtrack music to a series of public information films from the 1930s in which Britten and Auden’s works feature.
“It’s going to be a terrific evening – a really good night out. And I don’t think anyone has ever tried anything like this before,” he says. “The films are all fascinating, especially if you think of the times we are in now and all the stuff that we are losing, because the films show great pride and expertise in areas of public ownership, about things that have been sold off.”
The orchestra will perform Britten’s music while short films God’s Chillun, Six-penny Telegram, The King’s Stamp, Coal Face and Men Behind the Meters are projected, and West will deliver Auden’s lines, lip-syncing to the images. “I did Night Mail a couple of years ago at The Proms, and someone suggested that they could put together six or seven of the films together in an evening.”
Croydon will be the fourth time that West and the Aurora Orchestra have collaborated on the show, having already performed it at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and at Aldeburgh, where Britten began his music festival in 1948. On Thursday evening, the actor and orchestra will be in Southampton.
“I suspect when we do The Way to the Sea there, it will be rather poignant,” West says.
“It’s all about the London to Portsmouth line, and of course they have just announced the closure of the shipyards in Portsmouth.” West has a strong social conscience and is a defender of the arts, being chair of the National Campaign for the Arts.
West’s own big screen credits include the much-admired Howards End and, more recently, Hyde Park on the Hudson. He has just finished working on the second series of ITV’s Mr Selfridge and is embarking on a seven-part BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s Booker Prize short-listed novel set in England during the Napoleonic Wars in which “the world rediscovers magic… a sort of Harry Potter for grown-ups”, West says.
West has developed a very busy sideline to his acting career working with orchestras as a narrator. He reads music, plays the piano and cello, and “Every year, since I was at school, I go down to Prussia Cove in Cornwall where they stage an international musicians seminar; I go to wash the dishes just to be part of it. Most musicians don’t know many actors, and so now, when they need one, I suppose they think of me.”
The collaborations clearly work, whether in the theatre, recordings for audio books or on the radio, making West’s one of the country’s best-known voices. He is likely to be more in demand, too: with the centenary of Britten’s birth later this month, interest in the composer’s work has never been greater.
For West’s sake, let’s just hope that Britten’s music allows him to pause for breath just enough to see him through.
- Tickets for Sunday evening’s performance of the Aurora Orchestra, featuring Samuel West, are available from the Fairfield Halls box office: 020 8688 9291 or visit the booking site online
Coming to Croydon
- Frankenstein’s Travelling Freakshow: Nov 5-8
- Poppy Cafe, Coulsdon, re-opening: Nov 9
- The Kings of Summer: Nov 11
- St Giles School open morning: Nov 13
- Secret Love at the Ashcroft Theatre: Nov 14
- Summer in February: Nov 18
- Much Ado About Nothing: Nov 25
- Future Tech City: Nov 30
- Comedy in Music show: Dec 1
- Steve Knightly at Stanley Halls: Feb 5
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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- Britten war scores get live premiere (bbc.co.uk)
- Derek Malcolm recommends: Night Mail (standard.co.uk)